Donald Berwick, the man who came to embody everything the GOP hates about the new health care law, finally got his first hearing before Congress.
Since he was made administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services with a recess appointment by President Obama this summer, 134 days have passed, as Senate Finance Committee ranking Republican Charles Grassley ruefully noted.
Berwick, trained as a pediatrician, had faced what promised to be a bruising confirmation battle. Republicans made it clear they would reopen the debate about health overhaul and also challenge some of Berwick’s own voluminous writings as a Harvard professor and health policy expert.
He has, for instance, professed admiration for the British health system, which led to accusations that he wanted to import the same approach to the United States.
But Berwick had a simple answer when asked by Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY), why he agreed to a recess appointment rather than brave through the nomination gauntlet. "The reason I accepted is because the president asked me, and I want to serve this country," Berwick replied.
Republicans who had been breathing fire over Berwick just a few months ago, cooled it a little at Wednesday’s hearing. In fact, they spent much of their time complaining about how little time they had because of other scheduled Senate votes.
"Asking us to air all our concerns in an hour-long hearing with five minutes each is like asking us to drain the Pacific Ocean with a thimble," grumbled Utah Republican Orrin Hatch.
Much of the questioning from Republicans echoed themes from the midterm elections -- particularly whether reducing Medicare spending by $500 billion over the next decade will help or hurt the program.
Grassley pointed out that Medicare's independent actuary predicts that if the cuts are made to health care providers, they could stop serving Medicare patients, who would then be disadvantaged. "Do you agree with that?" he asked Berwick.
He did not. The actuary’s estimates, said Berwick diplomatically, "are just that, estimates. Our intent is to increase access to beneficiaries. I think they’ll find themselves in better shape as the act is implemented."
And when will Berwick be back to testify? Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT), who noted that the hearings are, and will continue to be, up to him to call, wouldn’t say.
But outgoing Sen. Bunning had a prediction that seemed pretty safe, given the takeover of the other side of Capitol Hill by the GOP, "I suspect you’ll be spending a lot of time testifying before the House of Representatives."